Pradeep Pattanayak

The Orissa High Court has quashed proceedings against a journalist of OTV who was implicated by the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) over allegations of spreading false information about Covid-19 with malafide intention. 

The television channel had aired an audio conversation between two people in August 2020. One of the persons, who claimed (in the clip) to have returned from a Covid hospital after recovery, undermined the disease saying it would be cured without treatment and medicines.

In this regard, the BMC authorities had lodged a complaint against the Input Editor of OTV, Swadheen Kumar Raut, at the Capital Police station in Bhubaneswar, alleging that the telecast and circulation of the audio was dissuading the public from availing the requisite treatment thereby causing an increase in the spread of Covid. The police had registered a case under sections 269, 270, 505 (b), 120 (b) of IPC and Section 3 of the Epidemic Disease Act. 

Following this, the Input Editor filed a petition under section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1972, (CrPC) before the High Court seeking the quashing of the criminal proceeding pending in the court of SDJM, Bhubaneswar. 

While hearing the petition filed about three years ago, the High Court quashed the case. 

Quashing the case against the journalist, Orissa HC Chief Justice S Muralidhar said that no prima facie case can be made against Raut either under the Indian Penal Code or the Disaster Management Act because the conversation between the two people in the clip which was aired by the TV channel appeared to be a casual one not intended to cause panic.

“Indeed the conversation appears to be a casual one not intended to cause panic in the public. It is highly unlikely that this one conversation would somehow induce the public to avoid treatment for Covid thus resulting in the spread of the pandemic and much less still induce the public to commit offences against the State,’ observed the court. 

“The court is of the view that that the continuation of such criminal case against the Petitioner, who is an Input Editor of OTV is likely to have a chilling effect on press freedom,” the court further observed. 

“For the aforementioned reasons, the criminal proceedings in G.R. Case No.3245 of 2020 pending in the court of S.D.J.M./ Bhubaneswar and all proceedings consequent thereto are hereby quashed,” ruled the court while quashing the August 2020 FIR. 

Notably, while hearing the case, the court quoted the 2020 Supreme Court judgment in Arnab Goswami and Union of India case which read, “The exercise of journalistic freedom lies at the core of speech and expression protected by Article 19(1)(a). The petitioner is a media journalist. The airing of views on television shows which he hosts is in the exercise of his fundamental right to speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). India’s freedoms will rest safe as long as journalists can speak truth to power without being chilled by a threat of reprisal. The exercise of that fundamental right is not absolute and is answerable to the legal regime enacted with reference to the provisions of Article 19(2).”

 “But to allow a journalist to be subjected to multiple complaints and to the pursuit of remedies traversing multiple states and jurisdictions when faced with successive FIRs and complaints bearing the same foundation has a stifling effect on the exercise of that freedom. This will effectively destroy the freedom of the citizen to know of the affairs of governance in the nation and the right of the journalist to ensure an informed society,” the apex court had further said.
Senior advocate Manas Chand termed the judgment as historic. “The Chief Justice says no prima facie case can be made against Raut. This means the case was lodged intentionally without any valid reason. With this historic judgment, the prestige of the Press will definitely increase,” said Chand. 

Terming the judgment as the victory of the Press, senior journalist Prasanna Mohanty said, “It can definitely be said as a big victory of the Press. It is a historic one, coming in favour of the Press. In the future, if any police officer or administrative officer tries to suppress the voice of the Press, the High Court will definitely act against the move.”

When contacted BMC Mayor Sulochana Das said, “I don’t have any information regarding the judgment. We will look into it once we get information.”